Political Science

Samuel Bazzi, Martin Fiszbein, and Mesay Gebresilasse have a new NBER working paper on that theme, here is the abstract:

In a classic 1893 essay, Frederick Jackson Turner argued that the American frontier promoted individualism. We revisit the Frontier Thesis and examine its relevance at the subnational level. Using Census data and GIS techniques, we track the frontier throughout the 1790-1890 period and construct a novel, county-level measure of historical frontier experience. We document skewed sex ratios and other distinctive demographics of frontier locations, as well as their greater individualism (proxied by infrequent children names). Many decades after the closing of the frontier, counties with longer historical frontier experience exhibit more prevalent individualism and opposition to redistribution and regulation. We take several steps towards a causal interpretation, including an instrumental variables approach that exploits variation in the speed of westward expansion induced by national immigration inflows. Using linked historical Census data, we identify mechanisms giving rise to a persistent frontier culture. Selective migration contributed to greater individualism, and frontier conditions may have further shaped behavior and values. We provide evidence suggesting that rugged individualism may be rooted in its adaptive advantage on the frontier and the opportunities for upward mobility through effort.

I am very much a proponent of this line of reasoning.

Acclaimed legal scholar, Harvard Professor, and New York Times bestselling author Cass R. Sunstein brings together a compelling collection of essays by our nation’s brightest minds across the political spectrum—including Eric Posner, Tyler Cowen, Noah Feldman, Jack Goldsmith, and Martha Minow—who ponder the question: Can authoritarianism take hold here?

With the election of Donald J. Trump, many people on both the left and right feared that America’s 240-year-old grand experiment in democracy was coming to an end, and that Sinclair Lewis’ satirical novel, It Can’t Happen Here, written during the dark days of the 1930s, could finally be coming true.

Is the democratic freedom that the United States symbolizes really secure? Can authoritarianism happen in America? Sunstein queried a number of the nation’s leading thinkers. In Can It Happen Here? he gathers together their diverse perspectives on these timely questions and more.

In this thought-provoking collection of essays, these distinguished thinkers and theorists explore the lessons of history, how democracies crumble, how propaganda works, and the role of the media, courts, elections, and “fake news” in the modern political landscape—and what the future of the United States may hold.

Due out in March, pre-order here.  The book also has Jon Elster, Timur Kuran, and Jonathan Haidt, dare I call it self-recommending?

Here is the transcript and podcast, I enjoyed this chat very much.  Here is part of the opening summary:

Sujatha Gidla was an untouchable in India, but moved to the United States at the age of 26 and is now the first Indian woman to be employed as a conductor on the New York City Subway. In her memoir Ants Among Elephants, she explores the antiquities of her mother, her uncles, and other members of her family against modern India’s landscape.

Our conversation considered the nature and persistence of caste, gender issues in India, her time as a revolutionary, New York City lifestyle and neighborhoods and dining, religion, living in America versus living in India, Bob Dylan and Dalit music, American identity politics, the nature of Marxism, Halldor Laxness, and why she left her job at the Bank of New York to become a New York City subway conductor, among other topics.

Here is one sequence:

GIDLA: Actually, the only relation I have with my family members is political views.


GIDLA: If we have to connect on familial links, we will always be fighting and killing each other. All that we talk about with my mother is politics and untouchability and caste and Modi and things like that.

It’s the same thing with my sister also. This is where we connect. Otherwise, we are like enemies. My brother, we’re completely alienated from each other, firstly because he goes to church now. We never used to go to church before. He’s into this Iacocca. Is there a name . . . ?

COWEN: Iacocca?

GIDLA: Yeah.

COWEN: Lee Iacocca?

GIDLA: Yeah.

COWEN: The former Chrysler chairman?

GIDLA: Yeah. He reads that kind of books.

COWEN: Management books.

GIDLA: He’s into that kind of stuff.

COWEN: You don’t?


GIDLA: He read Freakonomics and he liked it. I don’t relate to that stuff.

And this toward the end:

COWEN: Your most touching memory of your mother?

GIDLA: I don’t know. When I was arrested, she was very worried. She said, “I wish I could take you back into my womb.”

Strongly recommended.  I was pleased to see that Publisher’s Weekly named Sujatha Gidla’s book as one of the ten best of 2017, you can order it here.

Gifts of the Immigrants, Woes of the Natives: Lessons from the Age of Mass Migration (2017). JOB MARKET PAPER
Abstract: In this paper, I show that political opposition to immigration can arise even when immigrants bring significant economic prosperity to receiving areas. I exploit exogenous variation in European immigration to US cities between 1910 and 1930 induced by World War I and the Immigration Acts of the 1920s, and instrument immigrants’ location decision relying on pre-existing settlement patterns. Immigration increased natives’ employment and occupational standing, and fostered industrial production and capital utilization. However, it lowered tax rates, public spending, and the pro-immigration party’s (i.e., Democrats) vote share. The inflow of immigrants was also associated with the election of more conservative representatives, and with rising support for anti-immigration legislation. I provide evidence that political backlash was increasing in the cultural distance between immigrants and natives, suggesting that diversity might be economically beneficial but politically hard to manage.

That is from Marco Tabellini, job market candidate at MIT.

The subtitle is Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy, and the author is leading Syrian intellectual Yassin Al-Haj Saleh.  Imagine having a well-written book, totally conversant in the arguments of the social sciences, that set out to explain the Syrian tragedy to an intelligent reader.  Here is one typical bit:

The extremely decentralized nature of the Syrian revolution stemmed from nearly half a century of regime-enforced seclusion and isolation of Syrian society.  It was also occasioned by the regime’s forcible domination over all social interaction — and so a divide-and-conquer strategy was used by the Assadist oligarchy to confront the revolution right from the start.  Such strategies made any protest activities in central squares obviously impossible because this would have permitted the gathering of Syrian society’s diverse groups, and perhaps would have also allowed a degree of discussion, exchange of opinions, and general building of trust.  Keeping this in mind, it becomes clear that the extreme, forced fragmentation of the revolution’s activities is an additional factor that has facilitated the spread of the nihilist synthesis of complete distrust and a propensity for violence.

Where else can you find a book that compares and contrasts ISIS nihilism to 19th century Russian nihilism, or Sultanic principles in Syria vs. Lebanon?:

Lebanon is a neo-Sultanic state without a Sultan, and should either fill the gap and assign a Sultan with a well-developed general security shield, or turn the page of the sectarian patronage system and evolve toward a state of citizenship and equality.  In the context of present interconnections between the two Sultanates, Lebanon is the incomplete one with a large ‘security branch’ (i.e. Hezbollah) that is leaning more towards Sultanism, and the complete model is currently beset by a revolution.

Strongly recommended.  And as the author himself suggests in closing: “It is always necessary to demystify sectarian fraud…”

You can order the book here, though please note I do not sympathize with the author’s career or overall views in many respects.  He was a political prisoner from 1980-1996.  “Worthy of Gramsci…”  This book remains under-reviewed by mainstream outlets.

The sexual-harassment revolution is coming more slowly to Washington. Even the four female lawmakers who recently told the Associated Press of sexual harassment they faced from their male co-workers didn’t feel comfortable sharing the names of their harassers. “I’m not sure women in D.C. would be rewarded for their bravery [if they came forward], it’s just a different business,” Ellen says. “The thing about this town is that everyone is connected. The people who get ahead keep the peace and angle everything to their advantage.”

Add to that the tribal nature of politics: Most aides are terrified of doing anything that might bring bad press for their boss, or their side. “There’s an anti-snitch sorta thing — you don’t air your dirty laundry,” says Anne Gregory Teicher, a Democratic campaign manager. “It gives the other side power.”

And it doesn’t stop when the campaign is over. “Staffers are told from day one that they do not talk to press, full stop,” says Travis Moore, a former legislative director for the now-retired representative Henry Waxman, a California Democrat. As a Waxman aide, he says, “I spoke to a reporter once, on background, and I was incredibly nervous going into it … people are socialized not to ever talk about what’s wrong in the institution because it could reflect poorly on their member of Congress. There’s a culture that doesn’t accept criticism unless you’re talking about partisanship. It’s really bad for the institution.”

I heard similar rationales from the other women I reached out to. “We’re all a bit more scared. We don’t have platforms like big-name actresses do…”

Here is the full piece by Marin Cogan.

Using smartphone-tracking data and precinct-level voting, we show that politically divided families shortened Thanksgiving dinners by 20-30 minutes following the divisive 2016 election. This decline survives comparisons with 2015 and extensive demographic and spatial controls, and more than doubles in media markets with heavy political advertising. These effects appear asymmetric: while Democratic voters traveled less in 2016, political differences shortened Thanksgiving dinners more among Republican voters, especially where political advertising was heaviest. Partisan polarization may degrade close family ties with large aggregate implications; we estimate 27 million person-hours of cross-partisan Thanksgiving discourse were lost in 2016 to ad-fueled partisan effects.

That is from a new paper by M. Keith Chen and Ryne Rohla, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Definitely recommended, the volume covers 1929-1941, I am now on p.234.  Here is one good “that was then, this is now” bit:

Stalin had fixed a covetous eye on Chinese Turkestan, or Xinjiang (“New Territory”).  From January through April 1934, he fought a small war there.  Renewal of a mass Muslim rebellion had spurred Comintern operatives to contemplate pushing for a socialist revolution, but Soviet military intelligence had pointed out that, even though the rebels commanded the loyalty of almost the entire Muslim population (90 percent), a successful Muslim independence struggle in Chinese Turkestan could inspire the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz in Soviet Turkestan or even the Mongols.  Stalin had decided to send about 7,000 OGPU and Red Army soldiers, as well as airplanes, artillery, mustard gas, and Soviet Uzbek Communists, to defend the Chinese warlord.  Remarkably, he allowed Soviet forces to combine with former White Army soldiers abroad, who were promised amnesty and Soviet citizenship.  A possible Muslim rebel victory turned into a defeat.  Unlike the Japanese in Manchuria, Stalin did not set up an independent state, but he solidified his informal hold on Xinjiang, setting up military bases, sending advisers, and gaining coal, oil, tungsten, and tin concessions.  Some 85 percent of Xinjiang’s trade was with the USSR….Chiang Kai-Shek became dependent on Soviet goodwill to communicate with Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi.

Here is excellent New Yorker coverage of the book from Keith Gessen.  You can buy here on Amazon.

About one-sixth of India is Dalits, or “Untouchables.”  And while Western criticisms of caste segregation are a long-standing observation about India, I hardly hear serious complaints over the last two decades or so.  In contrast, the apartheid system of South Africa met with demonstrations, boycotts, campus activism, frequent dialogue, and so on.  Why don’t we see some modified version of the same for the Indian caste system?  No matter how you compare its relative oppression to that of South Africa, it still seems like a massive system of unjust and opportunity-destroying segregation, and an efficiency-loser as well.  Here are a few hypotheses, not intended as endorsements but rather speculations:

1. The caste system is simply too difficult for most Americans to understand, whereas apartheid could be represented more readily in what I dare not call simple black and white terms.

2. Most of the Indians who migrate to the United States are higher caste or at least middling caste, and they sway American opinions of India in a way that South African migrants to the USA never did.

3. Libertarians don’t want to focus on the caste system because it persists without active government support being the main driver.  Democrats don’t want to focus on the caste system because Indian-Americans are often leading supporters and donors.  It doesn’t feel like a Republican issue either.  So who is there to push this one for domestic ideological reasons?

4. Talking about the caste system makes harder the (justified, I should add) program of raising the status of non-minority whites in America.

5. Talking about the caste system would focus light on caste-based discrimination in the United States, and distract attention from other domestic issues.

What else?  Overall I find this a disappointing topic to ponder.  Perhaps all politics, like envy, really is local after all.

I am indebted to Sujatha Gidla for a useful conversation on this topic.  My formal Conversation with her will be up in a bit, I still recommend her book on caste, Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India.

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit:

If the bill succeeds in limiting these deductions, a logic is set in motion for future tax reforms. Let’s say the Republicans eliminate tax deductions for new mortgages above $500,000. That would become a sign that the homeowner and real-estate lobbies are not as strong as we might have thought. The next time tax reform comes around, legislators will consider lowering the value of the deduction further yet. After all, the anti-deduction forces won before and, in the new battle, those who expect to have future mortgages above $500,000 don’t have a stake anymore.

In other words, any squeezed deduction will remain a vulnerable target for more squeezing, or even elimination, over successive reforms.

And then:

The exact treatment in the House plan seems to be in flux, but the top rates from President Barack Obama’s tax reform are likely to stick in some manner. There even seems to be a rateof 45.6 percent on some earners, in the range of $1.2 million to $1.6 million a year. That is a far cry from Jeb Bush’s call in the Republican presidential primaries for a 28 percent top marginal rate, in the tradition of President Ronald Reagan. Some well-off Californians could possibly face a total marginal rate, all taxes considered, of over 62 percent.

You will recall that the Republican Party had in the past pressed strongly for reductions in the capital-gains rates, but that isn’t on the agenda now. Take that as a sign that Obama’s boost to those rates will stick.

If you solve for the equilibrium over time, maybe maybe you will get:

If we look at the Republican plan as a whole, it appears to be a recipe for a future tax code with many fewer deductions, lower corporate rates, higher income tax rates for the wealthy and a continuing inheritance tax. I’m not saying that the exact mix will or should make everyone perfectly happy, but is this not what a bipartisan tax reform compromise might look like?

My fear, of course, is that those deductions will not survive the next stage of the process.  Stay tuned…

You might wish to read James T. Quinlavin from 1999 (pdf), who also covers Syria and Iraq, here is one bit:

While observers have pointed to the apparent fragility of this balance for decades, the longevity of the balancing act is both a tribute to the Saudi rulers and evidence that their tools are more effective than generally recognized.

Ibn Saud’s personal conquest of Arabia, supported by a community of trust of about sixty men willing to fight against the odds, began with the recapture of the family seat in Riyadh. From there Ibn Saud went on to conquer the Nejd, the traditional heartland of Arabia, relying on both war and marriage to personalize his alliances and conquests. Marriage, even to bereaved relatives of defeated opponents, provided Ibn Saud an effective means of monitoring his enemies. The tribes of the Nejd made up the human core of Saudi Arabia, while Ibn Saud’s numerous progeny comprised the dynasty’s human core. Today the al-Sauds rule from a base within a family group that is not monolithic. Bonds of personal loyalty rather than of an “abstract notion of citizenship” extend from the family to the tribal groups. Only nontribal Saudis define their relation to the Saudi rulers in the latter terms.

Here is another:

To varying degrees, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Syria have come to concentrate key capabilities of offense and defense in parallel military forces. The total military power of the state is reduced, however, when these forces are not made available when needed.

Ahmed Al Omran on Twitter, a former WSJ correspondent, is monitoring current developments.  If you are wondering, Saudi stocks have rebounded.

In 2014 nearly 90% of the benefits of the state and local deduction as a whole flowed to those with incomes over $100,000.

So limiting the value of this deduction is obviously a good idea, right?  No one is suggesting that this “tax hike” will ruin blue state coastal economies?  Everyone is on board?  Good, glad to hear that.

That is from The Economist.

Due to popular demand, we are releasing a transcript of the Conversation with Lindsey and Teles.

We talk about liberaltarianism, how bad is crony capitalism really, whether government affects the distribution of wealth much, universities as part of the problem, whether IP law is too lax or too tough, why Steve didn’t do better in high school, the British system of government, Charles Murray, the Federalist Society, Karl Marx, Thailand, the Coase Theorem, and Star Trek, among other topics.  Here is one bit:

COWEN: What’s the most important idea in the book that you understand better than he [Brink Lindsey] does?

TELES: Well, so there is a division of labor here. Brink did a lot more work on the cases than I did, although we talked about them all and I did a lot more work on the political analysis. We draw a lot on great, really seminal article by Rick Hall at University of Michigan called “Lobbying as Legislative Subsidy.” And I think that idea is dramatically under appreciated. The idea that what lobbyists are essentially doing is providing information, that information is scarce, it is a source of power. And one thing that we add is, if the state isn’t providing information itself, it essentially has to get it from outside. And when they get it from outside, it imports the overall inequality and information gathering and processing that’s in civil society. And that can be a very strong source of inequality in policy outcomes. I think Brink understands that, but this is my wheelhouse so I think probably if you were gonna push me, I’d say I understood it better that he did.

And this:

LINDSEY: One can see the whole sort of second wave feminist movement since the 60s as an anti rent-seeking movement, that white men were accumulating a lot of rents because of the way society was structured, that they were the breadwinner and there was a sexual division of labor, and they received higher pay than they would have otherwise because they were assumed to be the breadwinner, and women were just sort of kept out of the workforce in direct competition with men in many roles. The last half century has been an ongoing anti rent-seeking campaign and the dissipation of those rents especially by less skilled white men has been a cause of a great deal of angst and frustration and political acting out in recent years.

Here is a link to the podcast version of the chat, plus further explanation of my interview method for the two.  Better yet, you can order their new book The Captured Economy: How the Powerful Enrich Themselves, Slow Down Growth, and Increase Inequality.

That is the theme of my latest column for Bloomberg, here is one excerpt:

Critics may argue that Facebook isn’t so much like a phone company because it uses complex algorithms to decide what to place before our eyes. That’s true, but would the critics be much happier if ads and posts on Facebook simply appeared in linear, chronological order? And on the question of algorithms, consider an analogy with a traditional publisher: Plenty of mainstream companies have published and promoted the works of Marx, Stalin, Hitler and Mao. The “algorithm” behind these decisions was whether these works would find an audience and bring in profit. The ideologies behind those works, of course, led to revolutions and the massacres of many millions, plus the infiltration of Western governments by communist sympathizers and delusional beliefs for several generations of Western intellectuals. Few of us are happy about those outcomes, yet for the most part we don’t blame printing presses, publishers’ quest for profit or their “algorithms.” We instead focus on the bad ideas themselves, and how we might persuade individuals otherwise.

You could think of Facebook as akin to a delivery truck, noting that such trucks often carry guns, abused medications, junk food and bad books, among other evils. If Russian conspirators order you flowers for Valentine’s Day, perhaps in appreciation of your pro-Putin tweets, the delivery truck will bring those too.

Here is good analysis by Jacob Sullum.  Here you can view some of the offending ads, weak tea says I. Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov would have been ashamed.

Overall, one reason Facebook is such a scapegoat is because so many individuals don’t want to admit that Trump simply won the election.  To the extent you can pin his victory on some kind of conspiracy or wrongdoing, that gives you something to rail against, something to blame, and also a way to feel better about parts of your country.

This is an out-of-synch bonus episode, rushed out because I think their new, just-out book — The Captured Economy: How the Powerful Slow Down Growth, Enrich Themselves, and Increase Inequality — is so important.  You will find the podcast here, lots of rapid fire back and forth.

Everyone wanted me to interview them together, but I said no, I would instead interview them separately and ask about 2/3 the same questions to see how their answers might hang together, or not.  That is how co-authors should be treated!  I also asked each what the other has for breakfast, and by the end each had confessed to several crimes, to avoid a longer sentence of course.

Here is the smallest of bits:

COWEN: Are higher levels of executive compensation part of the problem?

TELES: There you probably would get a different answer between me and Lindsey.

COWEN: That’s why I asked

Recommended, again here is the podcast (no transcript, we wanted to get this out right away).